A friend sent me a piece recently about how single women experience ambiguous grief – grieving the loss of something we do not have. Grieving the fact we will not have the children we hoped we would have, that we may not have the partner we hoped we would have, that, in fact, we may be all there is. It had never occurred to me before that part of what makes being single as I approach 40 more painful is that it involves not only the loss of people and relationships that were significant to me, but it means facing the loss of things I hoped I would have but do not, and may not ever, have. Children. A family. A shared home. Daily intimacy.
This is alot to process. It is one thing to choose to be single, or to choose to not have children. It is entirely another to have those things happen to you by circumstance, be that biological or the general roulette of life.
It is hard to be on an endless merrygoround of celebrating other peoples happiness. Engagements, house purchases, baby announcements on social media or over coffee, tea parties for colleagues celebrating one or all of those things. I am genuinely happy for each person individually, I wish only happy things for people in my life. But each one of these announcements is tinged with a ‘when is it my turn?’ voice in the back of my head. I smile and I hug people and I eat the cake and I ask about wedding, house and baby updates, and for the most part I am genuinely invested in these things. But there is an underlying pain of wondering what exactly has happened that means I am always the one doing the celebrating and never the one being celebrated. I know it’s not me. So why isn’t it me?
As single women, we often hear things like ‘but you’ve a great life, you’ve so much going on! You love your job, you’ve great friends! Focus on the positives!’. Yes, all of those things are true. But think for a minute. Maybe I have so much going on because I need to stay busy and occupy myself so I don’t get pulled into a spiral of sadness. Also, loving your job and having great friends are not things solely reserved for single people. You can love your job, have great friends, and still go home to a loving partner or family. And the greatest of jobs, even the greatest of friends, will not keep me company in my old age.
Matchmaking of token single friends can become an obsessive, and often embarrassing, pursuit. It can feel at times like single lives are treated as some sort of gameshow.There may not be any malintent in this approach, and sure the grass is always greener, but it still stings. Think about it: ‘God I’ve LOVE to be single for a week! I’m so jealous you’re going away on your own, I’d LOVE a week to myself’.. My life is not something to fantasise about trying on and then hanging back up after a week; it’s my reality. The implicit understanding is that you would still go back to your partner or family after that week. We can all crave change and something different when we know it wouldn’t be permanent unless we want it to be. But I don’t get to hang it all back up after a week. I go away on my own, come home on my own and sleep on my own every night. I don’t have an Option B. My reality, my loneliness, my ambiguous grief, while it may be invisible, is very real and at times very painful.
The process of maintaining faith and hope, not giving up while also being realistic is very, very tiring. The process of wanting to meet someone you care about and being terrified of caring about someone again is very, very tiring. The knowing that you need to be vulnerable alongside the knowing that you’re not sure if you can take another round of hurt and rejection, is very, very tiring. These are all common things I hear from single friends; suffice to say we are all pretty exhausted! We are also the targets of alot of ‘advice’ .This advice is often very conflicting: ‘You need to put yourself out there and manifest what you want/It’ll happen as soon as you’re not thinking about it/Once you chill out about it they will appear out of nowhere’. So by the time we have finished manifesting, putting in the leg work on soul destroying dating apps, holding onto our ever dwindling faith, focusing on ourselves, embracing the unknown, and not thinking about any of it we are probably so exhausted that all we want to do is watch Netflix in bed.
I have done alot of work on myself over the years and I am a pretty self aware person. I know my flaws, my triggers and my sore points. I have spent time and money going to therapy and investing in other things so that I can be the most authentic version of myself. As single people, we often hear things like ‘All that work paid off for me when I met so and so/Meeting so and so was my reward for all that work I did’. WOAH THERE!! For starters, relationships are not a reward or a prize. Sometimes they happen and sometimes they don’t. Setting them up as a reward implies that only the worthy win this prize, and that if we don’t have one, it is really our fault because we must be doing something wrong. Yeah sure we can feel lucky and grateful when we meet someone cool, but no one person deserves that more than another person. There is not a hierarchy of deserving for love and happiness, especially not one that heaps the blame onto the single person for a perceived failure to ‘win’ a partner. If you’re lucky, you meet someone you love. If you’re really lucky, you meet someone you love who also sticks around so you get a decent shot at building a relationship (as Sharleen Spiterei would say, ‘Love and loving are two different things’). It’ll definitely have its ups and downs and tough spots, but if you’re lucky, you get to give it a try. It’s not a prize. It’s luck and circumstance.
I could also quite happily never again hear the sentiment ‘‘when you learn to love yourself and be happy on your own, that’s when you’ll meet someone’. The implication here being that 1) I don’t love myself and 2) that I am unhappy on my own – again the implication being that I am doing it wrong, and it’s my fault that I’m single as opposed to it being a case of luck (or bad luck). Let’s clear something up; I love and value myself, and so do all of my single friends. We have left people and relationships that weren’t right for us or that were straight up damaging, we have picked ourselves up and dealt with rejection, hurt and heartbreak over and over – we have done this BECAUSE we love ourselves (and because we are strong as fuck). We do not love ourselves any more or any less than someone in a couple just by virtue of being single.
I know what I have to offer, I know I’m a great (if imperfect due to being human and all) partner. Me loving myself is not the problem. As for being happy on my own, it is quite possible to feel more than one thing at a time, to be happy on my own (something I’ve managed pretty well for several years now) and also to be lonely and sad at times. It is not a zero sum game. I can be content on my own while also wishing I was not on my own. This ‘advice’ about my levels of happiness places the blame on me, and reinforces the idea that a relationship is a prize I will win when I finally do things right. I cannot stress enough, no matter how good the intentions, how corrosive this approach can be to single folk.
Being single is not always easy. Being in a relationship is not always easy. Being a parent is definitely not always easy. Nothing is perfect, nor is it meant to be. We are complex people navigating complex lives, complex feelings and complex situations. One thing I do know is that society is not designed for single people. Housing, socialising, holidays are all designed with two in mind. The more I think about it, the more the discourse directed at single people is laden with blame, with judgement, with criticism and with the ever present message that we are Doing It Wrong; not loving ourselves enough, not putting ourselves out there enough, being too desperate, being too needy, being too picky, being too unsettled on our own, being too comfortable on our own, threatening men with our ambition, threatening men with our feminism, not prioritising finding a partner, prioritising finding a partner too much, expecting too much, not expecting enough. I want to lie down just writing all of that, let alone absorbing it every day.
Thinking about the fact that I may not have children makes me sad so I generally don’t talk about it or think about it. So we’ll leave that one there. I am used to sleeping on my own, but the thoughts of always sleeping on my own is pretty terrifying. The thoughts of never waking up to a familiar smile and cups of tea in bed is pretty devastating. Those things are my personal ambiguous grief.
I like travelling on my own, but the idea that travelling on my own is becoming my normal makes me sad. I have amazing friends, kind, smart, supportive, funny people in my life. I have an activist community that literally changed my life. But not being someone’s number one is hard. Not having one person who you know is thinking about you and really, really gives a shit about you, who you can call in a crisis or a celebration, who will look after you when you’re sick and cook you dinner after a long day, who will tell you they love you and think you’re amazing – that’s hard. Not having the big things – kids, a partner, a shared home – is hard, but not having the little things – shared meals, hugs, sleepy weekend mornings, thoughtful messages, someone to chat to about the minutiae of my day – is also really fucking hard. Feeling that I am carrying around all of this love that is going to waste is a very isolating feeling. I like to think I share it as wide as I can, and that I make some sort of positive mark in my communities, but there is a certain type of love that has nowhere to go. There are certain words that have no one to hear them, certain feelings that have no one to carry them. No matter how much I love and value myself, that, right there, is fucking hard. I’m not sure if that sense of lacking will ever get much easier.
I am quite a physical and tactile person and I find the lack of physical contact that comes with being single very challenging (casual sex does nothing for me in this regard, if anything it makes it worse). When I’m tired or stressed or feeling anxious, I can feel very physically disconnected. In times of heightened anxiety, I feel fragile in my own skin, disembodied. I desperately want to be able to put my head on someone’s shoulder, to physically lean on someone, to hold on to someone else so I can ground myself again. Not having someone reminding me that they see me and all that I am, that they know me and love me, means I can at times lose sight of myself. Not having a constant, anchoring, reassuring presence makes it that bit easier to get lost at sea. I fundamentally know myself and who I am, I know I am kind, strong, interesting, smart and good company but not ever hearing these things said with love by someone else makes it that bit easier to forget them. I support myself and reassure myself over and over, but it’d be nice to have someone else to do it for a change. I am happy and content within myself, but it would be nice to share that happiness with someone for a change.
The feeling of the lack of a physical supportive presence is very profound for me. The best way I can sum it up is hand holding. When someone takes your hand, it doesn’t just say ‘I’m here’, it is also a reminder that you are there too. It is someone saying ‘I see you, you exist, you matter’. Someone taking your hand reminds you that they are there and that you are there too. That can be the most comforting thing in the world.